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MLS players vote to accept return-to-play plan

Details on the MLS’ return to play

MIAMI, Fla. — (3 June 2020) The MLS Players Association voted on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning to approve the latest return-to-play plan negotiated with Major League Soccer. The MLSPA announced Wednesday morning that the vote passed. It also announced that the new collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”) originally agreed to in February had been ratified by the players and league owners. 

Yesterday morning, the MLSPA bargaining committee held a call to discuss the league’s amended plan. That was followed by a call at 1 p.m. ET with the full player pool, followed by individual team calls and then a vote. 

The vote means MLS will return from its COVID-19 suspension by way of a summer tournament in Orlando. The league suspended its season due to the COVID-19 pandemic on March 12th. Sources would not share details of the vote, however every individual player had a vote and a simple majority was needed to pass the agreement.

The wider implications for the future labour relationship between players and the league are unknown. Both the league and the players stood to lose without an agreement, and as much as players want to play, some were critical of how negotiations were handled by the league. Fans, on the other hand, will just be glad to have real games back.

Details on the background of the agreement and the specifics of the tournament follow.

Collective Bargaining Agreement

The players and the league ratified the new CBA that had been agreed to in February. However, there are some material alterations that are now included.

The terms of the previously-agreed CBA can be read here.

Modification 1. All terms of CBA are pushed back one year.

This means that all increases for 2021 will now begin in 2022, and so on. The CBA was also extended one year, and will run through the 2025 season. According to a statement issued by the MLSPA on Sunday, the one-year delay will also include delaying salary increases by one year, as well as capping individual and team bonuses.

Modification 2. Revenue sharing of next broadcast rights deal.

The revenue share agreement, which is referred to as “Incremental Media Revenue” (IMR), formed a part of the CBA terms that were agreed on in February. It is designed to insert a percentage of the net increase in media revenue that exceeds $100 million above 2022 levels (the last year of the current broadcast deal) into the salary budget and general allocation money.

In the present negotiations, the players have agreed to take a reduction in that IMR share that was supposed to begin in 2023. Players were initially set to receive 25 percent of the net increase in media revenue that exceeds $100 million above 2022 levels inserted into the salary budget and general allocation money. Instead, players agreed to 50 percent less (12.5 percent) in 2023, before returning to 25 percent in 2024 and 2025.

Players will take a 7.5 percent pay cut for the remainder of the 2020 season. Team and individual bonuses in 2020 will be reduced to a $5 million pool, $1 million of which will go toward the Orlando tournament. The league’s most recent demand was an 8.75 percent cut. What was agreed to is a far cry from the league’s initial proposal, which was a 50 percent pay cut for players at a time when league executives had taken a maximum cut of 25 percent.

Modification 3. Insertion of a force majeure clause into CBA

The league and players agreed to add a force majeure clause into the CBA, which is now permanently in the MLS-MLSPA CBA. The force majeure disagreement was a major sticking point.

What the League gave up:

The league agreed to remove language that would have allowed it to invoke the force majeure clause if only five MLS teams in a single season experienced a 25 percent drop in attendance from the previous season. The clause agreed to is modeled after the language in the NBA’s CBA, which had already been to by the MLSPA. Only after that did the owners demand insertion of the attendance-specific trigger.

From a legal perspective, the addition of such a specific trigger would have greatly expanded the scope and definition of force majeure beyond anything used in other professional leagues. Also, force majeure is by definition something which cannot be foreseen by the parties — attendance falling in a sports league is not something unimagineable and therefore should not be an event which could be considered a “force majeure.”

The Orlando Tournament

As it stands, the plan sees MLS return in a made-for-TV tournament at Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports complex outside of Orlando. Teams will fly to Florida on or around June 24th and train for two weeks before the start of the competition in early July.

The tournament features three group-stage matches, which will count toward the regular season table, as well as a knockout round. The exact specifics of the knockout round (format, prizes, etc.) have not been disclosed by MLS, although it may be a $1 million prize pool that the winning team can use to help fund philanthropic efforts the teams’ home market.  

New details in the league’s return-to-play plan:

Teams that are able to stay in market for full-team training will be allowed to stay home until just before the start of the tournament in early July. Other teams will travel to Orlando in advance of the tournament in order to train before games.

The agreement also allows for players to be granted an exemption from playing in the tournament due to medical or family conditions; sources indicate players with pregnant partners would be granted an exemption. However, players without an exemption who do not participate in the tournament, even if they believe it is unsafe to do so, will face “strict” penalties.

The league was initially planning to house all members of each team’s travelling party at the Disney-owned Coronado Springs Resort, but it is reported that other properties were being vetted earlier this week. It has been reported in media that the NBA will vote on a plan to return to play and will hold a tournament at the same Disney-owned resort. The NBA may end up occupying the Coronado Springs Resort.

Throughout negotiations, plans called for every member of teams’ travelling party to be locked down at the league hotel for the duration of the tournament. That has not changed: family members of travelling parties will not be allowed at the hotel or at games.

In total, the MLS tournament will keep teams in Orlando for up to six weeks. The league’s initial plan called for teams to be in Florida for a maximum of 10 weeks and play a minimum of five matches.

The hope is for the league to resume its regular season in empty stadiums in home markets after the Orlando tournament, though of course that depends on the progress of the COVID-19 pandemic, which the United States has handled the least effectively of any developed nation.

The MLSPA released a statement today to announce the approval of the return to play plan. Their message also made reference to the fact that there are issues going on that are far more important than football; namely demands of the people for justice, change and an end to rascism.

Cover Photo: Stade Saputo, Montréal | Photo: KE Russo

By Ken Russo

My work in the business of soccer applies skills acquired in law practice with a focus on the sport's commercial, communications and sporting components. Russo Soccer aims to inform, educate and engage in dialogue on news and relevant issues in the game.

Um advogado por formação, concentro meu trabalho nos negócios, comunicações e operações de equipes no futebol mundial. | Abogado con fundación avanzada en comunicaciones, enfocado en los negocios del fútbol y las comunicaciones. | Je suis un avocat experimenté dans les affaires de football.

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